SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Naturally, the baseball offseason will revolve around Shohei Ohtani.
Executives from all 30 teams left the Omni Resort in Arizona having done little in the way of deal-making. The major news of the initial days of the offseason has been the hiring of new heads of baseball operations (David Stearns with the Mets, Craig Breslow with the Red Sox, Peter Bendix with the Marlins) as well as the appointment of a few managers, headlined by the stunning move of Craig Counsell from the Brewers to the Cubs.
Beyond that, the most significant development of the General Managers Meetings was a stomach bug that swept through executives and inspired a queasy start to the offseason.
Of course, some might have experienced dyspepsia as a result of disorientation about the heights to which Ohtani may take the market.
The 29-year-old Ohtani is a player unlike any since Babe Ruth and the two-way stars of the Negro leagues like Bullet Joe Rogan and Leon Day. It is widely expected that he will land a contract that demolishes all precedents for the richest in big league history — requiring such a huge commitment that the market for elite free agents may move at a crawl around him.
Even as some balk at the notion that a player could be worth $500 million or more, the logic of such a contract isn’t hard to fathom.
Ohtani was as good as any hitter in the big leagues in 2023, slashing .304/.412/.654 with 44 homers and 20 steals in 135 games. He’s entering his age-29 season with presumed peak years ahead of him. If he were only a hitter, Rafael Devers’s 10-year, $313.5 million extension (taking effect for his age-27 season) and Aaron Judge’s nine-year, $360 million deal last offseason (entering his age-31 season) might be benchmarks.
But, by the way, Ohtani pitches.
While the righthander won’t be on the mound in 2024 after having elbow surgery in September, it’s certainly reasonable to think he could pitch for, conservatively, five years of his next contract.
Over the last three years, he has thrown 428⅓ innings while forging a 2.84 ERA. Even with real questions about his durability and health, it’s worth noting that Carlos Rodón — who’d had a long history of injuries — signed a six-year, $162 million deal as a free agent last winter.
So, yes, there’s an excellent chance Ohtani emerges as a $500 million player. Beyond the sticker shock, that will affect how the rest of the offseason plays out — including for the Red Sox. After all, there aren’t a lot of teams that will choose to bid to such heights.
The few that do — speculatively including the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Mets, Angels, and Rangers — likely will need to have Ohtani pick a destination before they can enter high-stakes auctions for other top-tier free agents, particularly pitchers such as Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto as well as Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, and Sonny Gray.
Let’s get this out of the way: Boston looks like an unlikely landing spot for Ohtani.
On Thursday, as he prepared to leave the GM Meetings, Breslow declined to discuss the team’s interest in any individual free agents. However, he reiterated that the priority list “probably starts with starting pitching.” Asked whether he’d prefer a full-time DH (a job description to which Ohtani will be limited in 2024) or a more flexible approach to the role, Breslow said, “Positional versatility is really, really valuable. In an ideal world, we would be looking at additions that could also play positions and maybe add versatility and we wouldn’t have to stick them at one position.”
Unless the Sox plan a massive payroll increase, it’s hard to envision them adding Ohtani and addressing their glaring need for pitching. And even if they are willing to redefine their spending limits for a baseball unicorn and bid beyond the levels of other clubs, it’s worth noting that when he came to the States after the 2017 NPB season, Ohtani met with five West Coast teams, plus the Cubs and Rangers — eliminating all East Coast teams.
Perhaps that geographical preference has changed, but it serves as a reminder that Ohtani controls the process, and with it, much of the industry.
After all, assuming there are teams that will be interested in Ohtani but can’t afford both him and a top starter, players like Yamamoto, Snell, and Nola have considerable incentive to wait until Ohtani chooses his destination before they sign.
Meanwhile, Yamamoto’s availability via the posting process — a major league source said Orix could make him available “any day now,” at which point teams will have 45 days to sign him — will serve as another key domino.
Yamamoto, 25, who is the top pitcher in the NPB, is widely seen as the foremost prize of the pitching market, and thus represents a potential domino for other top starters. He is certain to have at least one impact on the timing of the market, as another star Japanese pitcher, Shota Imanaga, is expected to be posted by Yokohama only after Yamamoto signs, according to major league sources.
And, of course, teams such as the Brewers that may make top starters such as Corbin Burnes available in trades might want to wait until the free agent pitching market starts to shake out before they consider moves.
In other words, the Season of Shohei is now about to be the Offseason of Ohtani — an appropriate outcome for a marvel.